Nova Scotia

Ottawa won't do impact assessment on Northern Pulp effluent treatment plan

The future of the Northern Pulp mill is firmly in the hands of Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson, after his federal counterpart on Monday announced he would not designate the project for a federal impact assessment.

'A federal impact assessment is not the right tool for every type of project,' says federal minister

The Northern Pulp mill manufactures 280,000 tonnes of Kraft pulp annually and supplies pulp to manufacture common household products such as tissue, towel and toilet paper, writing and photocopy paper. (The Canadian Press)

The future of the Northern Pulp mill is firmly in the hands of Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson.

Wilson is scheduled to release his environmental assessment decision on the Pictou County pulp mill's plan for a new effluent treatment facility at 11 a.m. on Tuesday.

On Monday, it was learned Wilson will have the final word on the matter after federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced he would not designate the project for a federal impact assessment.

"I am very much aware of concerns that have been raised related to the potential for adverse impacts from the project on marine life including a number of important questions raised by federal departments," Wilkinson said in a statement.

"It is my expectation that outstanding questions and information gaps will be answered through the provincial environmental assessment process. Should these issues not be sufficiently dealt with through the provincial process, I remain committed to ensuring that they are thoroughly understood and addressed through federal regulatory processes."

Mill's future

Prior to Monday's announcement, it was expected Wilkinson would make his decision on Friday, three days after Wilson's. The move means there will be no ambiguity around Wilson's ruling on Tuesday and whether it could be superseded by Ottawa.

If Wilson turns down the application, it will likely mean an end to the mill's operation. The provincial Liberals passed the Boat Harbour Act five years ago and it mandates that the mill no longer use the former tidal estuary to treat its effluent after Jan. 31, 2020.

Should Wilson approve the plan, which calls for a new treatment site to be built on the mill's property and treated effluent to then be discharged into the Northumberland Strait via a pipeline, the mill would need an amendment to the Boat Harbour Act to keep operating.

Mill officials have said it would take about two years to complete construction, but that the mill cannot go into hot idle for an extended period of time. Without an extension to continue using Boat Harbour, Northern Pulp cannot continue to operate.

Members of the forestry industry and union officials for mill workers have aggressively lobbied the government to approve the plan and grant an extension to the act, noting that thousands of jobs are at risk should the largest player in the industry go down.

On the other side of the debate are members of Pictou Landing First Nation, fishermen, tourism operators and others in Pictou County who have called for the deadline to be upheld, even if that means an end to the mill. The potential unknowns when it comes to the marine ecosystem, along with closing a painful chapter of environmental racism trump everything else at this point, they say.

Those same groups had called on the federal government to take over the assessment process, something that would have required an additional two years to complete before construction could potentially begin, because they argue the provincial government is in a conflict of interest as both regulator and a lender to the mill.

Federal scientist concerns

In his statement, Wilkinson said even if the province approves the project it would still be subject to and required to satisfy federal rules.

"A federal impact assessment is designed for the largest most complex projects where there is significant environmental risk in areas of federal jurisdiction," he said.

"A federal impact assessment is not the right tool for every type of project. Under CEAA 2012 and the Impact Assessment Act, pulp and paper mills are not designated projects. As such, these types of projects have not undergone federal environmental assessments."

Federal scientists, responding to requests for feedback from the provincial government as part of the public comment period for the environmental assessment focus report, raised significant concerns about the document, calling it lacking and in some cases relying on inaccurate information.

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